“The A-Team” is near the top of a long list of television programs we like now because we liked then. We cut it some major slack for the sake of nostalgia, despite it (let’s be honest here) not being that good. We even convince ourselves that its worst parts – the cheesy plots, the cartoonish violence, the one-dimensional characters – are what we love the most.
Because of this, a big screen remake would surely be, quite literally, a no-brainer. Just stick to the general set-up of the show, pad an uncomplicated plot with enjoyable action set pieces, and toss in a handful of old school catchphrases and perhaps a cameo or two for good measure. Fans around the globe would eagerly lower their expectations in favor of a memory lane-fueled good time. How could this possibly go wrong?
You can see where this is going. “The A-Team” – the big screen remake, that is – makes the mistake of trying too hard where it doesn’t need to and not trying hard enough the rest of the time. Perhaps inspired by the “Bourne” and “Mission: Impossible” series, writers Joe Carnahan (who also directed; more on him later), Brian Bloom (an actor making this is first writing credit), and Skip Woods (who penned “Hitman” and “Swordfish”) decide a basic 80s action plot isn’t enough, and so they instead concoct what they presume to be a twisty, turny espionage flick. It’s not really an “A-Team” kind of story, but, hey, that’s alright, since anything goes in the world of reboots; the real problem is that it’s not really a good kind of story, either.
It starts out decently enough. A pre- and during-credits sequence (the credits, which come and go intermittently over a good ten minute stretch of film, ruin the natural flow of an otherwise nifty set of freeze-frame character introductions) shows us how Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) first gets his team together. Templeton “Faceman” Peck (Bradley Cooper) has been captured by generic Mexican baddies; B.A. Baracus (former Ultimate Fighting star Quinton “Rampage” Jackson), having saved his van from another unrelated set of villains, meets Smith by accident in the middle of the desert (don’t ask) and, upon learning they’re both Army Rangers, agrees to help in the mission (really, don’t ask); the trio make their way to a hospital that’s, um, somewhere, either nearby or not nearby, or something, and they enlist mental patient/ace pilot Murdock (Sharlto Copley) to fly them to wherever, and then stuff blows up.
It’s better than it sounds.
Indeed, take out Hannibal’s limp monologue about trusting fate to bring the team together and whatnot, and the prologue does a fine job imitating the preposterous fun of the series. Its rapid-fire approach to the material keeps us giggling to the one-liners and wowing to the explosions before we realize not a lick of it makes any sense.
We then jump ahead a handful of years to what a subtitle informs us to be the last days of the current Iraq war. Whether this is supposed to be the future is never explained, nor do we learn why a set of hundred dollar bill counterfeit plates that become the film’s MacGuffin uses a design not used since the early 90s. (For a while I thought they meant the end of the first Iraq war, but then I saw the cell phones and modern cars and, well, somebody clearly stopped bothering midway through production. And by “somebody,” I mean “everybody.”)
It’s here the writers attempt to modernize the original series’ Vietnam themes, making our heroes Iraq vets. They toy with current events, inventing a Blackwater-esque civilian group (and who doesn‘t hate Blackwater?), setting up its leader, Pike (played by Bloom), as the movie’s main villain. The A-Team is sent on a covert mission to retrieve a truckload of counterfeit money and those darn plates, which they do, but then the truck (which they’ve airlifted back to the base after blowing up half the town, because the A-Team does not know what “covert” means) explodes, and Pike escapes with the plates. In the movie’s own world of logic, this means the A-Team is court-martialed and Pike, not bound by Army rules, will not be charged with any crime. (He goes into hiding anyway.)
Jump forward another six months. The A-Team break out of their various prisons with the help of an enigmatic CIA agent (Patrick Wilson), who may or may not also be a villain. With DCIS officer/Peck’s ex-girlfriend Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel) on their trail, the heroes attempt to track down Pike and retrieve the plates, which, for reasons nobody bothers to properly explain, will be enough to clear their names.
What follows is a string of alternately enjoyable comic moments and dreadful serious ones. Wilson and Bloom, both refusing to take any of this seriously, turn in tongue-in-cheek performances that salvage many of the later scenes. Cooper’s character loses steam as the film roles on (and as the plot pushes the romance between Peck and Sosa, in a failed attempt at sexing up the story), but early on his devil-may-care smugness is appealing and quite funny. And then there is Copley, who steals the show and then some; the “District 9” star proves himself to be an unstoppable talent, pounding the screen with an unchecked lunacy that rescues the movie repeatedly.
Meanwhile, Carnahan – whose critical darling “Narc” officially becomes not a sign of a newly matured artist but an anomaly in the career of a director obsessed with loud, winking action (case in point: his last movie was “Smokin’ Aces”) – does a fine job presenting some of the more ridiculous action, juggling a solid pace and big laughs, most notably in a sequence involving a mid-air battle between a falling tank and two drone planes.
But that same flair also gets out of check far too often. Carnahan might know frantic pacing, but he doesn’t quite have the knack for spatial logic; the movie ends with a sequence that’s supposed to be mildly visually confusing (they’re trying to trick the bad guys, you see, with a shell game-inspired sight gag that sounds great on paper but makes no sense in reality) but ends up being what can politely be called a clustercuss of visual noise. Throughout the film, his quick cutting and handheld action shots often end up blurring together in one big pile of bland, like what you’d get if described a Michael Bay movie to a blind person, then asked him to remake it.
The real offender, however, is a cluttered plot that strains to out-clever itself. We get a couple identity switcheroos and a bulk supply of double- and triple-crosses, all in a weak effort to yell “gotcha!” in our increasingly bored faces. It all leads to a finale constructed not around a well-timed plan of action, but an overcrowded con job. Right around the time Carnahan thinks we’re leaning in, trying to outguess the plot, that’s when we’re busy checking our watches.
I mentioned how well the film works when everyone’s taking it easy and having a laugh. But for every moment like that, we get an ill-advised attempt at seriousness, like the one where B.A. discusses his spiritual crisis and defends his mid-movie choice to renounce violence. (The script also misquotes Gandhi in an effort to convince the character to return to action. Let me repeat: “The A-Team” takes an out-of-context half-quote from one of history’s most influential pacifists and uses it to approve punching and body-slamming and shooting and killing. Wow.)
It all gets blended together in one big jumble that’s about one-third fun and two-thirds far from it. “The A-Team” takes a foolproof formula and fumbles it with sloppy, uninspired storytelling and a heavy dose of “let’s start a franchise because we can” aimlessness. This movie ends up as a prequel with nowhere to go, kicking around a few random action scenes and a few pointless plot twists, killing time until the credits. I, too, love it when a plan comes together, but from the looks of this ramble, it’s clear there was never a plan at all.